Monday, July 20, 2009

Why I Love Animation: Kiki's Delivery Service - Part One

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the movie that made me fall in love with the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I had seen My Neighbor Totoro before and appreciated its beauty and creativity, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t click with me. It wasn’t until I sat down with a VHS copy of Kiki, a birthday present from my friend Jon, that I realized that Miyazaki’s movies were something I wanted to keep an eye on. By the time Princess Mononoke came out in U.S. theaters, I was completely hooked.

Like all the best fantasies, Miyazaki’s movies show audiences wonders unlike anything they have seen before, but ground their stories in the universal human experience. On its surface, Kiki is the story of a thirteen-year-old witch who journeys to a new town to train for a year. But at its core, Kiki is about a girl leaving home for the first time and learning to rely on herself.

The DVD of Kiki has both subtitles and an English dub, both of which I have watched. There is also a fan translation of the Japanese script online that may be a little more accurate than the subtitled version, which is based on the script from an earlier English dub of the film, not a direct translation. All three tell the same basic story, though the dub deviates from the other two versions at points and seems to have a weird aversion to silence, judging by the way the characters will frequently talk when their mouths are not visible, regardless of whether there is any corresponding dialogue in the original film. Feel free to watch it any way you please. For the purposes of this article, I am mainly following the subtitles.

Kiki is a thirteen-year-old country girl who also happens to be a witch. Thirteen can be an exciting and challenging age for any girl, but it’s even more exciting and challenging for a young witch. Tradition dictates that once a witch turns thirteen, she must move away from home to live and train on her own for a year. When Kiki hears the radio report that there will be lovely weather and a full moon that night, she decides that it’s time for her to go.

Kiki’s mother is concerned, as most mothers are when their children take their first steps towards independence. And since Kiki is not so much taking a first step as a first leap, she has all the more reason to worry. Kiki is still a novice witch. She hasn’t learned how to mix magical potions like her mother. The only thing she knows how to do is fly and even that can be a struggle for her. Kiki just doesn’t seem as ready to be on her own as her mother was at thirteen. “Nobody leaves home that young anymore,” her mother frets. Kiki’s father worries as well. Kiki’s decision to leave is so spur of the moment that their camping trip planned for the coming weekend is suddenly cancelled. Though he realizes that she is no longer just a child, Kiki’s father still sees her as his little girl, a view she reinforces by asking him to lift her up into the air the way he did when she was small. “How come you never told me you were growing up so fast?” he asks, holding Kiki in his arms as she hugs him back. Even Jiji, Kiki’s black cat and constant companion, thinks she should put off her departure for a month or two.

Jiji’s voice in the dub is the source of some controversy among fans of the film. His original Japanese voice is provided by Rei Sakuma, who also did the original voice of Shampoo in the Ranma ½ TV series and movies. It’s small, high pitched, and not unlike a little boy’s voice. In the Enligsh dub, Jiji is voiced by the late, great Phil Hartman, who sounded anything but childlike. Some fans feel like Hartman’s voice strays too far from the original. Personally, I think the different voices focus on different aspects of the character. Jiji is a very small cat and his Japanese voice reflects his size. But as we’ll see later on, Jiji is also an adult cat. The voice director for the English dub may have felt that some of Jiji’s lines would sound odd when paired with a voice that could imply that he was just a kitten. So his English voice is focused less on his size and more on his age.

Of course, being on her own does not mean that Kiki is free to do whatever she wants. When her friends come to see her off, Kiki tries to tell them that this is no pleasure trip and she will be working very hard, though she bursts into giggles when one of them asks whether the new town she settles in will have discos. She has to wear the traditional black witch’s robes, even though she would prefer something more modern and stylish. Right before she leaves, she argues with her mother over which broom she will be flying on: the cute little one she made herself or her mother’s old, dependable one. Swap out “broom” for “car” and this could be any parent and teenage child.

Kiki ends up leaving on her perfect moonlit night, surrounded by her friends and family cheering her on as she lifts off…and promptly crashes into first one tree, then another, and finally a third before she steadies herself and is on her way. She is leaving behind a world she has grown completely comfortable with, an everyone-knows-everyone sort of place where Kiki knows all the neighbors and all the shortcuts. Even Kiki doesn’t know quite what lies ahead of her. Her spontaneous decision to leave that night hasn’t given her much time to think about where she is going or what she do will once she gets there. Her only plan is to head south towards the ocean and she has given almost no thought to what magical ability she will use to earn a living.

When Kiki collides with the tree branches, it causes little bells hung on each of them to ring. This was put in the film at the request of Eiko Kadono, the author of the book on which Kiki is based. In the original story, Kiki’s mother hung the bells in the nearby trees to warn Kiki when would she let her mind wander while flying and start to lose altitude. Ms. Kadono asked that the film include a scene where the bells ring as Kiki leaves her hometown. The reasoning behind the bells is never mentioned in the movie, but between seeing Kiki ring them by crashing into the trees and a man in the crowd saying how he’ll miss hearing their ringing, viewers can make a reasonable guess at what their purpose is.

Flight is a recurring theme in Miyazaki’s films and he seldom misses an opportunity to celebrate the beauty and wonder it holds. Kiki is not always graceful in flight. The way she gets blown sideways by an errant wind and kicks out one leg for balance show that she doesn’t have total control of her broom. But it’s also clear that flying is something she loves doing, as she takes her hands off the broom and holds her arms out to the sides like a daring kid on a bicycle or smiles as she watches a plane pass by.

Once they are underway, Kiki has Jiji turn on her father’s radio, which she convinced him to give to her before she left. This begins the first of the film’s two songs, “Message in Rouge.” Since the song was not written for the film, the lyrics don’t have much to do with the film’s story. It has a sort of doo-wop feel to it, which fits in with the movie’s setting: a fictional 1950s Europe untouched by the horrors of World War II. Two completely different songs were recorded for the dub, so if you’ve decided to watch the movie that way, you’ll hear a song called “Soaring,” which is a little less 50s inspired, but more pertinent to Kiki’s situation. There are also some scenes in the dub that insert background music where the original soundtrack has none, another example of the dub being unable to let silence stand.

Flying does have its drawbacks as well and one of the recurring concepts in the movie is how much Kiki is at the mercy of the weather. Despite the forecast predicting a beautiful, clear night, a sudden rainstorm leaves Kiki and Jiji drenched and forces the to take shelter in a train car until the next morning.

Kiki reaches the ocean and spots a coastal town that seems like a good prospect for her new home. At first glance, it seems to have everything: ocean views, a majestic clock tower, and no other witches in residence. But if culture shock is bad for the typical country kid arriving in the big city for the first time, it’s even worse for a young witch. The city is packed with people and vehicles, including a bus that Kiki nearly collides with, almost causing a major traffic accident. When she tries to introduce herself as the new resident witch, people either seem disinterested or baffled by her. Even Jiji eventually gets snubbed when a fluffy white cat haughtily turns up her nose at him. A traffic cop nearly writes Kiki up for the accident she almost caused, but someone starts yelling “Thief!” and he has to run off to investigate. Already in trouble with the authorities on her first day in town, Kiki sneaks away, humiliated.

As she makes her escape, a boy on a bicycle rides up alongside her. He proudly announces that he was the one who yelled “Thief” to divert the policeman’s attention away from Kiki. His name is Tombo and he can barely contain his excitement at meeting a real live witch. But Kiki is in no mood to make friends. Embarrassed by her disastrous debut and at being regarded like a curiosity, she tells Tombo off. She didn’t ask for his help, she snaps, and it was rude of him not to introduce himself. Tombo is undeterred by Kiki’s standoffishness, but he digs himself into an even deeper hole, telling Kiki she sounds old-fashioned “like my grandma.” Understandably, Kiki is not won over and takes the first opportunity to turn down an alley and fly away. Tombo remains fascinated with Kiki, a huge grin on his face as he watches her take off.

Night is approaching and Kiki and Jiji don’t even have a place to stay. Jiji is convinced that they should move on and find another town where the people are friendlier. But Kiki’s luck takes a turn for the better when she encounters Osono, a big-hearted and very pregnant woman who runs the local bakery with her husband. When Kiki meets her, Osono is trying to tell a lady pushing a baby carriage that she has left her baby’s pacifier in the bakery, but the woman is well out of earshot. Osono is about to go after her when Kiki steps in and offers to return the pacifier herself and spare Osono the long walk. Osono happily agrees and watches in amazement as Kiki hops onto her broom and easily glides down to the street below to deliver the pacifier.

When Kiki returns to the bakery with a note for Osono from the lady with the baby, Osono insists on thanking Kiki for her help with some hot chocolate. It’s no surprise that Osono has realized that Kiki is a witch, but she also already knows about witches in training. As soon as she hears that Kiki has nowhere to stay, Osono offers her the spare room in her attic, which Kiki gratefully accepts. The room is separated from the bakery and other parts of the house by an exterior stairway, so Kiki can remain relatively independent. When Kiki decides to support herself with a flying delivery service, Osono gives her the use of the bakery telephone and free rent and breakfast, provided that Kiki helps her out in the bakery. Osono quickly becomes Kiki’s surrogate mother, providing Kiki with just the right balance between the independence she craves and the support and care she still needs.

On her first night in her new place, Kiki turns on her father’s radio. But the only broadcasts it picks up are English language, not Japanese. (There is no such distinction made in the dub; the radio just plays English broadcasts through the whole film.) It’s no longer the familiar reminder of home that Kiki had intended it to be. The television in her neighbor’s apartment, however, is still speaking Japanese and is tuned to a news report about the voyage of the “Freedom Adventurer” blimp. (The blimp is mentioned earlier in the dub, where it’s called “The Spirit of Freedom” as part of the forecast Kiki listens to before she decides to leave home.)

After helping out at the bakery and scrubbing the flour-covered floors of her new apartment clean, Kiki goes out to buy some food and home supplies. She is still not accustomed to city traffic and carelessly dashes out into the street without looking, nearly getting hit by passing cars. Jiji scolds her for her lack of caution. Kiki doesn’t seem worried, but it’s a different story when she encounters three girls her age walking in the other direction, chatting amongst themselves. “I’ve never been more embarrassed in my whole life,” one of them says, referring to some prior event. But it is Kiki who really feels embarrassed. Being around kids her own age makes Kiki feel extremely self conscious, especially when she compares their pretty, stylish clothing with her own simple robes. It doesn’t get any better when Tombo and some of his buddies drive up in a rundown old car. Tombo tries once again to get Kiki to talk to him, but makes this mistake of pointing out to his friends that Kiki never wears anything but her black dress. This only leaves Kiki feeling more embarrassed and she once again gives Tombo the cold shoulder.

Shopping for supplies for their new home, Kiki frets over the prices. Though he is normally the responsible one of the two, Jiji can’t resist pointing out a mug with black cats on it, which Kiki ends up buying. By the end of the shopping trip, their money is nearly gone and Kiki tells Jiji that they will be living on pancakes – evidently the ramen noodles of this time and place – for a while. Magic is never an easy solution for Kiki's problems. She still must contend with the everyday struggles, such as making enough money to live on.

As soon as Kiki gets home, Osono tells her that she has a customer, a regular at the bakery. She needs a toy delivered to her nephew for his birthday: a stuffed black cat that looks remarkably like Jiji in a birdcage. Though Kiki did have the foresight to purchase a map of the area, she still doesn’t plan ahead well and hasn’t given any thought to pricing. The woman hands her an amount that Kiki thinks is more than fair and she’s off on her first delivery.

To be continued....

All images from this article are copyright Eiko Kandono, Nibariki, Tokuma Shoten, and Buena Vista Home Entertainment Inc.

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